Prague, 8 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Crowds of jubilant Iraqis welcomed U.S. troops in Baghdad's eastern neighborhoods today, as others plundered government buildings, in the clearest sign yet that Saddam Hussein's regime has all but crumbled in the Iraqi capital.
Thousands of U.S. Marines in military vehicles rolled this morning into Saddam City, the predominantly Shi'ite neighborhood on Baghdad's east side that is home to almost half of the city's 5 million people. The marines encountered practically no resistance and were instead met by crowds cheering the Iraqi leader's downfall.
The welcome soon turned into widespread looting of government institutions in the neighborhood. Crowds entered buildings, running back out into the street with whatever they could grab. Correspondents say people seized computers, bookshelves, tables, electrical equipment, and even cars. The plundered buildings include the headquarters of Iraq's Olympic Committee, run by Saddam's son Uday, the state-owned Oil Marketing Corporation, and the traffic-police headquarters.
U.S. tanks and other military vehicles had taken up positions around Al-Fardus Square in the very center of Baghdad, where a crowd of Iraqis were attempting to topple a monument of Saddam Hussein. U.S. soldiers were broadcasting messages from loudspeakers on the square calling on Iraqis not to fire weapons.
U.S. military spokesman Brigadier General Vince Brooks said Iraq's capital had been added to the list of places where the regime has now lost control. But another U.S. military spokesman, Captain Frank Thorp, said it is too early to say the war in Iraq is over.
"I think it is premature to talk about the end of this operation, yet. There may be many more fierce fighting days in front of us as coalition forces continue to move within Baghdad and around the country," Thorp said.
Thorp said U.S. forces are now moving north from Baghdad toward Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit. Thorp said coalition warplanes have attacked Iraqi positions around Tikrit during the last 24 hours.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced a temporary suspension of its activities in Baghdad because of the chaotic situation in the Iraqi capital. ICRC spokesman Moin Kassis said he regretted the decision but that it was necessary. The head of logistics coordination for the organization in Iraq, 48-year-old Canadian Vatche Arslanian, has been missing since yesterday, after his vehicle was hit by gunfire.
In northern Iraq, meanwhile, a senior Kurdish leader says U.S. special forces and Kurdish fighters have seized a strategic hilltop near the city of Mosul.
Hoshyar Zebari of the Kurdistan Democratic Party told journalists that the area, called Maqloub, had been heavily defended by Iraqi forces and acted as a hub for air defenses against coalition air strikes. Control of the hilltop means no major Iraqi defenses now remain between Kurdish-U.S. forces and the center of Mosul, 15 kilometers away.
"I would characterize it as the most significant gain in this northern campaign military activity that has taken place. It shows that the Iraqi Army is completely demoralized. Otherwise, they would not have given up this position so easily." Zebari said.
In Paris, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin held talks about Iraq's postwar future. The two tried to smooth over their differences about the war in Iraq, with de Villepin saying both sides agreed that the United Nations should play an important role in rebuilding the country. Straw followed suit, telling a news conference that Paris and London share many more common interests than disagreements in international affairs.
"Yes, everybody knows that there have been some differences of emphasis [with France] with respect to Iraq, but there is a huge range of other issues on the agenda on which we are in the same place or almost exactly the same place and that includes this profound issue of peace between Israel and Palestine," Straw said.
The leaders of Russia, Germany, and France are due to meet in St. Petersburg this weekend for talks expected to focus on Iraq. The three countries jointly issued a statement before the war stating their opposition to military action. Now that the U.S.-led war is nearing completion, analysts say the three countries can be expected to jostle for influence in the reconstruction effort.
Of more immediate concern is the looting and lawlessness that continues to plague cities like Basra and that may very soon engulf most of Baghdad, in the absence of any police. British troops in Basra, which have until now turned a blind eye to looting of government buildings by locals, had to intervene today to stop a mob trying to stone an alleged thief to death.
The concern is that after the euphoria of Hussein's fall passes, such incidents may multiply. The fate of the Iraqi leader himself remains unclear today. Whether he was killed in a bombing raid by U.S. forces on a suspected "leadership target" on 7 April is still being determined.